Junius Puke inspired bill to kill criminal libel, senator says
In 2003, Greeley Police officers arrived at the home that then-UNC student Tom Mink shared with his mom, confiscating his computer and more because of complaints about his portrayal of professor Junius Peake as "Junius Puke" in his fledgling Internet publication, The Howling Pig.
Eight years and a six-figure lawsuit settlement later, Senator Greg Brophy is sponsoring a bill to eliminate from state law the criminal-libel statute used against Mink -- and he says the Greeley case inspired his efforts.
"I thought we lived in a country where we had free speech," says Brophy, whose measure is scheduled to be heard by the Senate judiciary committee this morning. "I understand that if you say something about somebody that harms them, they have the right to sue for damages in civil court. But I didn't think the heavy hand of government could come in and throw you in prison for something you'd written. And I think that's dangerous."
Use of the criminal-libel law, which ACLU of Colorado legal director Mark Silverstein has called a "relic of the nineteenth century," is rare. Yet its continued existence on the Colorado books "begs for the argument of unequal application of the law," Brophy believes. "So this kid in Greeley gets a charge against him for something he did, but somebody in another town doesn't. That's not supposed to happen. If you commit a crime, it's serious, and you should be prosecuted for it."
Moreover, he goes on, "This is a felony. We're not talking about speeding here. This is treated as a Class 6 felony, which means if you're guilty, you go to prison."
This is the very situation that faced Mink, as we noted in a July 2010 update about the case, which Westword first covered in the January 22, 2004, Message column "The Art of the Matter." Here's how that piece laid out the basics:
On the Pig's home page..., a disclaimer differentiates Puke, who's seen wearing Gene Simmons makeup, from [Junius] Peake, the 72-year-old Monfort Distinguished Professor of Finance at UNC's Monfort College of Business, and a nationally recognized expert on microstructure; he's appeared on National Public Radio and other major news organs. Nonetheless, a second picture of Puke that, like the first, is a doctored rendering of a Peake glossy, shows him sporting a tiny mustache that the professor interpreted as a nod to Adolf Hitler when he saw a copy of the Pig at UNC last fall. "How would you like it if someone sent out a newsletter likening you to Hitler?" he asks. "I lived through the Hitler era. I had friends who died then. To me, that was the worst thing."
The rest of the portrayal frosted Peake, too, prompting him to express his frustration to the Weld County District Attorney's Office. The article continues:
Peake says DA representatives then brought in the cops under Colorado's criminal-libel statute, a law declaring that published statements "tending to blacken the memory of one who is dead, or to impeach the honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation or expose the natural defects of one who is alive" may be considered a felony. Conviction carries a possible two years in the pokey and a $100,000 fine.
At that point, the ACLU's Silverstein told us during an earlier interview, "a search warrant was obtained to search Tom Mink's home for evidence of the felony of criminal libel. Police had a warrant to authorize them to basically take any writings in the house, whether in paper or electronic form, then carted off his computer and all his electronic files, including articles in progress for the next issue."
Page down to get more details about the Junius Puke case.